NetMax Professional: Bringing Linux to the Less Technically Inclined

NetMax Professional: Bringing Linux to the Less Technically Inclined

August 27, 2003

NetMax Professional Suite: Easy-to-use, multi-faceted Linux-based Internet appliance server

The Linux operating system is the poster child for the open-source software movement, as it was developed in a global, self-organizing collaboration made up mostly of volunteers. The Linux software itself has evolved into a platform that is stable, secure, highly capable of serving all networking functions, and perhaps most notably, available free-of-charge.

But although Linux is obtainable without cost, the technical know-how needed to leverage the power of the platform can be high, requiring significant training or the added support costs of experts. Consequently, a number of vendors have taken to packaging Linux in their own style, with their own support tools, oriented toward users and organizations with different strengths or interests.

Cybernet Systems has come up with NetMax Professional Suite in an effort to release an out-of-the-box turnkey Linux solution requiring very little technical knowledge to configure and maintain, as compared to traditional Linux distributions. It labels NetMax an "Internet Appliance Server," meaning it can handle all the usual networking tasks an organization may need -- from Web serving to e-mail to firewall protection -- with the "plug-and-play" ease of an off-the-shelf appliance.

NetMax is intended for a dedicated machine. Almost any Pentium-compatible PC will do, as the system requirements for running the efficient Linux box are modest by today's hardware standards. The product arrives on a CD-ROM that is booted with the machine. Then, either from a console connected to the Linux machine or via any remote computer with a Web browser (and on the same local network as the NetMax machine), you can proceed through the step-by-step installation routine. The NetMax installer will first erase the hard drive in the dedicated machine, and then proceed to install the system software, which is basically a Red Hat Linux distribution.

The install process is very streamlined and takes less than 15 minutes. There are few technical decisions to be made, and the few that there are (setting up the networking addresses, configuring a root user account) are explained clearly. By far, this was the easiest Linux install we've ever experienced.

Once setup, NetMax is controlled via a Web interface that offers control over all of the server's functions: from managing user accounts, e-mail services, Web serving, network and firewall behavior, and network file shares. In essence, NetMax is a Web-based user interface for managing a Red Hat Linux installation. The interface is clean, complete with context-sensitive help, and a minimum of obtuse options or decisions. It would be incorrect to suggest that one need not know anything technical to manage a NetMax server, but one can certainly be productive with much less technical expertise than is required for the average Linux-based server.

Cybernet Systems is positioning NetMax as a kind of meta-distribution. Even though the included Linux is the Red Hat variant, Cybernet offers its own package (RPM) updates for ongoing system maintenance. The advantage of this is that Cybernet has followed the Debian model of offering dependency-aware packages that can release system updates in one-click. On the other hand, this makes the enterprise more reliant on Cybernet's viability as a distributor of Linux updates in comparison to more established vendors such as Red Hat, Debian, and SuSE. Cybernet itself even acknowledges that some updates for NetMax may lag behind those of Red Hat.

NetMax is reminiscent of the free software, Webmin, which also provides a Web-based management interface for Linux systems. Webmin itself is fairly sophisticated, and much of what can be done with NetMax can also be done with Webmin. In this sense, NetMax's primary advantage is its easy setup and turnkey installation. For an installed Linux distribution, Webmin provides a similar level of functionality at no license cost, although it is admittedly not quite as user friendly as NetMax's Web interface.

Ultimately, NetMax fulfills on its promise. Within a few minutes of popping in the CD-ROM, a PC can become a network server capable of handling DHCP, DNS, firewalling, NAT, dial-in and dial-out modem support, Web serving, cache, and proxy services, VPN, e-mail, and file sharing. Of course, all Linux boxes can do this -- the difference with NetMax is the ease of getting off the ground.

To that end, the value of its $300 price tag is highly dependent on just how important the turnkey, off-the-shelf readiness is to an organization.

Pros: Super easy installation, dependency-aware package system, simple Web interface
Cons: Reliance on vendor for package updates; limited functional advantages over installed Linux distributions with free Webmin software; license cost may render itself unnecessarily high for those with Linux expertise

Reviewed by: Aaron Weiss
Original Review Date: 8/27/2003
Original Review Version: 4.03